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The Development of Mental Abilities

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Young children think differently than do older children and adults. Such thinking is not wrong, simply different and age-appropriate. When a preschooler asks, "If I eat spaghetti, will I become Italian?" she reflects, in an original and amusing way, her belief that "you are what you eat." Rather than "correct" the child, we might ask, "What do you think?" Children usually have answers to the questions they ask and are very happy to share these with us. The child might reply, "I think so, because my friend Robert eats spaghetti, and he's Italian."

Transductive Reasoning

The foregoing example illustrates a form of reasoning that is characteristic of young children. This transductive reasoning is from concrete event to concrete event, as opposed to deductive reasoning, which is from a general principle to a specific conclusion. If the child were reasoning deductively, she might think

People who eat spaghetti become Italian [major premise].

I eat spaghetti [minor premise].

Therefore, I will become Italian [conclusion].

In fact, though, her reasoning is transductive, and she thinks

Robert eats spaghetti, and he's Italian.

If I eat spaghetti, I will become Italian too.

What is missing in transductive reasoning is the major premise, the overriding rule from which a particular conclusion can be deduced. Instead the child reasons from case to case.

Transductive reasoning helps us to understand a number of otherwise puzzling features of young children's behavior. For example, young children often believe that when two events occur in succession, the first causes the second. A child who crosses her fingers before going to the doctor and does not get a shot will henceforth cross her fingers whenever she goes to the doctor. Transductive reasoning thus underlies what often appears to be superstitious behavior in young children (as well as in older children and adults!).

We can observe this transductive approach to causality in many other ways as well. For example, it helps to explain why children label things the way they do. When a mother and her preschool children were walking on an icy sidewalk, the mother slipped and fell. From then on, her children called the outfit she was wearing that day her "sliding clothes" because they saw the clothes as having made their mother slip and slide. Likewise, a child who was always served just one slice of pizza had trouble understanding that the whole round pie was a pizza. For this child, a pizza was triangular and not round.

Transductive reasoning also plays a part in the child's adoption of transitional objects. In the cartoon "Peanuts," Linus's blanket is a transitional object. Such objects help us to bridge the time interval between the loss of one source of gratification and the attainment of another. Once weaned, some children need a transitional object to carry them over until they find another form of gratification that is equally satisfying. At that point, the transitional object can be discarded. Transductive reasoning operates in the choice of the transitional object. A young child believes that if a blanket gave her comfort once, it will do so always.

Transitional objects are very important to young children, particularly those who are going through a difficult time in their lives, such as the divorce of their parents. If we recognize that the child needs this object to help deal with the separation and loss of gratification from parents, we can better accommodate to the object (blanket, doll, and so on) and encourage other children not to tease or joke about it. It is important to point out that adults use transitional objects as well. We sometimes rush into a new relationship after an old one is broken, simply to bridge the time period until we have regained our emotional balance. Young children use transitional objects in the same way.

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